Imprisoned Russian Activist Awarded Sakharov Prize, EU’s Top Recognition

By Naveen Athrappully
Naveen Athrappully
Naveen Athrappully
October 21, 2021 Updated: October 21, 2021

Jailed Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny was awarded the European Union’s top human rights prize on Wednesday for his efforts in challenging President Vladimir Putin’s grip on power.

“He has fought tirelessly against the corruption of Vladimir Putin’s regime. This cost him his liberty and nearly his life. Today’s prize recognises his immense bravery and we reiterate our call for his immediate release,” European Parliament President David Sassoli wrote on Twitter.

Navalny’s recognition with the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought will likely heighten tensions between Russia and the European bloc.

Navalny, 45, was allegedly poisoned with a nerve agent in August last year while in the Siberian city of Tomsk. Russian authorities had denied involvement. However, investigative reporters from The Insider and Bellingcat have named Russian security officers responsible for the incident. The EU has called for his immediate release and sanctioned six Russian officials for Navalny’s poisoning and imprisonment.

Navalny was undergoing treatment in Germany and was arrested by the government on his return to Russia in January. He is currently serving a 2.5-year sentence in a penal colony for alleged parole violations.

Navalny was a growing YouTube phenomenon with trending investigative videos into the corruption of the Russian elites. The Kremlin critic’s claims have turned him into a leading opposition figure.

However, Moscow remains defiant regarding the allegations saying that Western powers were organizing a smear campaign against the country while maintaining that Navalny was jailed for breaking the law.

On June 9, a court in Moscow classified Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation as an extremist outfit. This gave leverage for local Russian authorities to prosecute his allies throughout the country, and halt the NGO’s activities. Many of his supporters have fled abroad.

“Putin calls Navalny a criminal blogger, but he is alone in this. Alexei Navalny is a politician who fights for justice despite all the threats and assassination attempts,” wrote Navalny’s team on Telegram. “And we are certain that Putin is not pleased to hear about this.”

Russia’s Investigative Committee launched an inquiry in September against Navalny claiming that his “extremist” foundation aimed at “changing the foundations of the constitutional system in the Russian Federation.” Navalny has denied the allegations, and said that they were politically motivated. If proven, the charges could keep him in jail for another decade.

According to Marat Gelman who spoke with RFE/RL, the Kremlin will make use of its influence in Russian media to discount the story, and “neutralize any impact at home.”

“It will not change opinions of Navalny,” Gelman said. Allies will be happy but “people who watch [Russian state] television … will receive one more affirmation that Navalny is a scoundrel, an American agent.”

Named after Russian dissident Andrei Sakharov, the Sakharov Prize is awarded annually by the European Parliament for activists and organizations that promote human rights and freedoms.

This year’s nominees included jailed former Bolivian President Jeanine Áñez, Sahrawi activist Sultana Khaya and 11 Afghan women who were fighting for women’s rights in Afghanistan before the Taliban seized power.

Past winners include Venezuela’s democratic opposition and South African president Nelson Mandela.